Mark Whitehead 12 September 2018

Overcoming the gender gap in local government

The decision by the Local Government Association to launch a campaign to recruit women councillors is a timely move.

Headline figures on the numbers of men and women in local government are striking: the proportion of elected female councillors in England has crept up by just 3% in the last four years according to the Fawcett Society, bringing the total to just 34%.

It says councils are 'stuck in the past' and failing to make real progress.

The Local Government Commission last year and the recent gender pay gap figures published by the Government have provided plenty of evidence that there is a problem.

But what can be done about it?

There is always a tendency in such matters to issue statements, set targets, produce 'toolkits' and adopt strategies - many of them providing much-needed rationale for change.

But what is needed most is practical support.

The Fawcett Society calls for a 'strategic response' from central government, political parties and local councils, saying they should act on recommendations made by last year's commission to 'remove the barriers to women’s participation and make local government fit for the 21st century'.

The recommendations include introducing codes of conduct to combat sexism and setting targets to increase women's representation.

They also call for maternity policies for councillors and council cabinet members - three quarters of councils in England responding to a freedom of information enquiry admitted they had nothing on offer for women councillors who get pregnant.

The commission recommended that councils should offer full support for childcare and adult care costs.

These recommendations would make it possible for women to attend meetings - the minimum requirement for active participation in local democracy.

The difficulty, of course, is that such measures cost money - and in these times of government-imposed austerity that is in short supply.

The billions sucked out of local government since 2010 have been well documented, and the further billions needed to fund services in the future are also well known.

Action to increase the full participation of all sections of the community in their councils is urgently needed, as the Fawcett Society, the LGA and others including the main local government union, Unison, have recognised.

But to achieve its objectives in the next few years it must be accompanied by government action to restore proper funding for councils.

Without funding, hopes of improving the position of women in local government are likely to remain just that: hopes.

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